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Every decade probably gets The Great Gatsby it deserves. The 1920s found the novel to be less telling a revelation of itself than author F. Scott Fitzgerald meant it to be; the book sold in the 20 thousands of copies when Fitzgerald expected somewhere around 70. The title lay dormant for the next thirty years until something in the air in the late 1950s boosted a new edition and sent the book soaring into the stratosphere of American letters. The 75th anniversary edition I just read estimates that over 10 million copies have been sold in the USA alone. The book obviously has struck a chord.
So what chord is that, and what does the movie version currently showing in theaters tell us about the USA today? The trailers made me expect the worst—a glamorization of the senseless party scene that Fitzgerald’s novel went out of its way to eviscerate. Truth be told, the movie does overdo it on that score, as might be expected from director Baz Luhrman, whose previous work includes Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge! By that measure Luhrman’s Gatsby is what the culture of reality TV deserves. On the plus side, Leonardo DiCaprio excels at capturing the energy, hopefulness, and youth of Jay Gatsby—especially the youth, which can escape us in the text. We pull for Gatsby even as we see how fully mobbed up he is, and we wince in our seats at the painfully quick deflation of his naïveté. All the more credit to DiCaprio who has to make Carey Mulligan’s ditsy Daisy Buchanan seem entrancing, and Joel Edgerton’s fundamentally mis-read Tom Buchanan into someone worth combating.
A more basic and telling deviation from the text comes in the film’s overall tone. Where Fitzgerald’s text is lush with longing, poignancy, and the late Romantic, Luhrman goes for the garish and surreal. Maybe that’s saying that Americans can’t really believe in deep dreams anymore. Maybe we’re so deadened in the winter of our discontent that such dreams as we have are cast as nightmares in advance to inoculate ourselves against disappointment. Gatsby’s mansion, like the ash-heaps on the way to New York, is exaggerated to the point of the grotesque in this movie; Fitzgerald’s remarkable economy of prose gives way to the overwrought production of party scenes. Maybe this represents 2013, or maybe it’s simply impossible to transpose Nick Carroway’s subtle, allusive narrative to the screen.
Back to the question of the chord that The Great Gatsby strikes and its perennial resonance in American culture. I always thought it was the last word in the success saga, though Dale Carnegie and his many successors didn’t get the message. Gatsby serves up all the elements established by Ben Franklin in the prototype of the genre, his Autobiography. Young man of pluck encounters good luck in the person of a powerful patron, and cultivates his connections and character—much more to the point, his appearance of character—to rise to the top of his dreams. The icons of that success, Franklin shows us in recounting his arrival as a lad in Philadelphia, are bread and the babe, money and the girl. Gatsby knows that it takes the first to get the second and finds out too late that it doesn’t happen that way. More accurately, that Big Inherited Money will beat self-made chump change every time.
That’s where the miscasting, or underperformance, of the Buchanans in the new film is so disappointing —and so ruinous of the story’s message. Fitzgerald nails Tom Buchanan perfectly: a Yale man whose only distinctions are athletic prowess and a mountain of family wealth beneath his feet. The WASP scion, cool, callow, and in command as the gods of America have ordained it to be. Edgerton’s Tom is sweaty and excessive, Black Irish, not cold Anglo. He’s bursting all over with force, not laid back with hooded eyes calculating the moment when it must be deployed, and then without compunction. Meanwhile, Mulligan’s Daisy lacks the deep allure that Fitzgerald rings up in first bringing her on stage. She’s upper-middle class in this film, not the female royalty of the American industrialists’ dream. Luhrman’s screenplay speaks the words of class tension, but his Buchanans don’t embody them.
More’s the pity, because the most apt message of Gatsby for today might be lost in the shuffle. Perhaps, as my pastor suggested, Gatsby is ultimately a study in contrast between caring and careless people, the party of hope versus the party of cynicism. As it happened, I missed her next sermon this past Sunday because I was out at Kennebunkport, Maine, living large on the Lilly dollar in helping to plan a conference for later this fall. After dinner, of course, we had to stroll down the path to see the Bush compound, where senator, CIA director, ambassador, Party chair, and presidents older and younger have passed their summers. Luhrman does right in quoting Fitzgerald’s words on the screen: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….” So also, it occurred to me, having just read of Syria and the looming re-implosion of Iraq, George W. Bush (Yale ’68), Donald Rumsfeld (Princeton ’54), and Dick Cheney (ex-Yale), sons of the Mayflower all gone to seed.
The last time Nick meets Tom in Fitzgerald’s pages, the titan is shorn of all his luster and menace: “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.” Nick’s Tom then dashes off into a jewelry store to buy a trinket. Ours paints himself in the bathroom mirror.